A decade ago I wrote about my grandson Ammon, who had just turned two and had always been a cuddle-bug. He loved to be held. Unlike my older grandsons who would come for only a quick hug and kiss, then want to jump down and get on with life, Ammon would stay a long time in Grandma’s lap. One day I was holding him and reveling in his closeness. He pulled away a little, sat up straight and looked up at me with a look on his sweet baby face of pure unadulterated love and trust.
In that heart-stopping moment, I thought how Ammon’s expression would be the most appropriate one I could have when I look up to my Heavenly Father in prayer. When I pray I can imagine myself as a little child on Jesus’ lap, looking up into His face with that same pure love and trust, feeling absolute security and a thrill of joy at His presence.
When I can feel His nearness and love, am trusting Him completely and seeking His will, my prayers are very different from the desperate ones that focus on my will! In 1 John 5:14 we read, “And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask anything according to his will, he heareth us.” I need to seek the Spirit always to know what to ask for, to know His will, to be willing to submit to it even when it is far different from what I think I want or need.
Elizabeth Rockwood, author of the book When Prayers Are Not Answered, told a story that illustrates the kind of prayer that brings great peace. She tells of wanting to take her small child’s hand to lead him across a busy street, but finding it clenched tightly shut around some treasured object. She had to coax him to entrust the treasure to her. Only then were the tiny fingers free to twine with hers so she could guide the child forward to the destination she knew was desirable for him. She says that open-handed prayers are like this. Only when we “let go” of our earthly treasures (our will, our wants, our concerns) and trust His will, can we twine our fingers with His and move forward.
The principle sounds wonderful, but oh, how hard it is to apply when the thing you must “let go” of and trust to the Lord is the life of your loved one.
The most fervent prayers I’ve ever heard were offered for the life of a mother of seven children. Her four youngest were girls ranging in age from five to twelve. I’ll never forget the prayer meeting held in the chapel for this good woman. The husband spoke, saying something like, “I know that God controls every atom in this universe. He is aware of every cell in my wife’s body, especially the ones that are cancerous. If it is His will, I know He can and will heal her, even though the doctors are giving us no hope. But we submit to His will, and if it is her time and she dies, I will continue to praise His name as long as I live.”
How badly that wife and mother seemed to be needed here, yet she died a few days later. Because that faithful family trusted the Lord, they were able to accept His will and move forward, with sadness, of course, but with a stronger faith. Watching them, marveling at their acceptance, seeing them pull together and grow in love and testimony, my faith was strengthened too. The Lord has truly blessed them all along the way, eventually with a wonderful woman who was spiritually prepared through many trials of her own to help as the new wife and mom in their family.
Earnest prayer is the heaven-blessed golden thread that keeps us connected with God and Christ. President James E. Faust said: “I have learned from countless personal experiences that great is the power of prayer. No earthly authority can separate us from direct access to our Creator. There can never be a mechanical or electronic failure when we pray. There is no limit on the number of times or how long we can pray each day. There is no quota of how many needs we wish to pray for in each prayer. We do not need to go through secretaries or make an appointment to reach the throne of grace. He is reachable at any time and any place” (Ensign, May 2002, 59).
The Bible Dictionary states: “Prayer is the act by which the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other. The object of prayer is not to change the will of God, but to secure for ourselves and for others blessings that God is already willing to grant, but that are made conditional on our asking for them. Blessings require some work or effort on our part before we can obtain them. Prayer is a form of work, and is an appointed means for obtaining the highest of all blessings” (Bible Dictionary, 752-753).
Meshing the Work of Prayer with God-given Agency
In Relief Society one day a sister told of putting her errant son’s names on the prayer roll and praying for him earnestly. She said she was certain that was why he was now on a mission and doing well. I wondered how many other sisters like me had been praying their hearts out for years and keeping names on prayer rolls with quite different results.
Oh, if only it were so easy to get all our sons on missions; that all we had to do was pray earnestly and with real intent and suddenly they would listen to wise counsel. But perhaps that is a wish something like Alma’s when he said, “O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people! Yea, I would declare unto every soul, as with the voice of thunder, repentance and the plan of redemption, that they should repent and come unto our God, that there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth. But behold, I am a man, and do sin in my wish; for I ought to be content with the things which the Lord hath allotted unto me. . . . I know that he granteth unto men according to their desire” (Alma 29:1-4).
And so, if I wish that I could pray all my children on missions and married in the temple, pray all my family out of their problems, pray that everyone might repent and “have no more sorrow upon all the face of the earth,” I do sin in my wish.
God made agency the over-arching, under-girding principle of the universe. All children of God must choose, and receive according to their desires. All differ in their responses to the Spirit and the amount of time they need to learn spiritual lessons. I pray amiss when I pray against God’s plan of opposition, when I pray against each person choosing and learning from the consequences and lessons of mortality.
Receiving Blessings Better Than We Know to Pray For
So many times our heart-felt earnest prayers result in blessings far greater than we have the wisdom to pray for. One woman told of a situation in her family that had caused her grief for years. She had met with great success in her adult life, but her brother hadn’t. His envy was like a wall between them. Through the years he turned away in ever-increasing resentment from her affirming love and friendship to him. She prayed often and earnestly that he would change his attitude.
He did not change, but she did. Her painful feelings about their relationship dissolved. She found in their place a deep peace and acceptance of him as he was. She was amazed. She knew she could never have achieved this peace on her own, and hadn’t even known that was what she needed to pray for. In addition, her continuing loving efforts toward this whole family did not go unnoticed. The wife and children all became her dear friends and contributed much to her life.
I have such a great testimony of this principle. When I was praying long and earnestly for my son Brian, little did I realize the personal blessings that would come from those heart-deep prayers. My son did not suddenly change his mind, come back to church, and pursue the goals I would have liked him to. But my heart was so changed toward him that to this day I cannot think of him without an outpouring of the sweetest kind of love, even though he is now in the spirit world. I have gained from those prayers the faith to keep praying for the duration, for as long as it takes. By praying earnestly, coming to the Lord with utter realization of my dependence on His love and mercy, I have learned so much about what prayer is all about.
The Savior Prays for Each of Us
In 3 Nephi 17:21 we read, “And when he had said these words he wept, and the multitude bare record of it, and he took their little children, one by one, and blessed them, and prayed unto the Father for them.” And so does He pray for each of us. I am His little child, and so are you. He weeps and prays over us and loves us enough to include each of us in all His promises. We are part of His infinite sacrifice and part of the plan of salvation. We are part of His plan in such a way that He has blessings reserved just for us. He knows our names, but so much more. He knows the intent of our hearts, our righteous desires, and our every pain. He knows how much we want to live on a higher plane, love better than we love. He knows how deeply we desire to experience the Atonement in our own lives, to be clean every whit, to be a witness of Him by the light of our countenance. But how can we do it? Only by asking for and receiving the gift of charity.
Praying for Charity
Moroni tells us to “pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are the true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ.” God bestows the true love of Christ when we pray for it. We don’t earn it, we don’t get “good enough” to have it. God bestows it. Only through charity we can forget self, feel whole, and radiate Christ’s love. Is it His will that we have charity? Undoubtedly. So when we pray for charity, we pray for that which “never faileth.” And we can pray with full faith that in His own time and way, line upon line, our prayers will be granted.
When I spoke with my friends Debbie and Shanna about this article, they added such good ideas about prayer: Shanna remembered receiving a horrendous long distance bill years ago and wondering how big her bill would be if she were charged for every “long-distance” conversation she had with God. Would the size of it mirror her true feelings about the precious privilege of communicating with the Lord?
Debbie said she has often thought of the need to listen and not just talk when we pray, which makes the following analogy so profound: what if I called my friend, asked her a very pressing question which I knew she could answer, but hung up before she had the chance to respond? But isn’t that what we often do? In D&C 45:6 we read, “Listen to him who is the advocate with the Father, who is pleading your cause before him.” So many other scriptures counsel us to listen. Debbie said that her favorite way to be still and listen is to read the scriptures. She finds that the Lord’s answers often come to her plainly as she does so, maybe not in the very words she is reading, but in the impressions of the Spirit that come because of those words.
Surely the main purpose for prayer is to listen and receive the Lord’s guidance and help. D&C 63:1 says, “Hearken, O ye people, and open your hearts and give ear from afar; and listen, you that call yourselves the people of the Lord, and hear the word of the Lord and his will concerning you.” O that we may all pray with the intent to “give ear” and to hear and accept the Lord’s will concerning us!